Golf Handicap Vs. Index What's the Difference

Golf Handicap Vs. Index: What’s the Difference? (In-Depth)

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Golf is a tricky game, made even more difficult to understand by complicated rules and rating systems. Handicap index vs handicap is one of those tricky parts. But we’re here to make it easier.

  • Handicap index and handicap are not the same, despite the terms often being used interchangeably. However, they work together to measure you against other golfers and any course you’re playing on. But what’s the difference between index and handicap?
  • Your index is a number determined by recent scores and identifies how skilled a player you are.
  • A handicap takes your index and applies it against the course to predict how many strokes over (or under) par you will shoot.

You cannot determine your handicap without first knowing your index. With that number handy, you can use a calculation found later to figure out what you really want to know – how many strokes you’re getting.

What is the Handicap Index?

golf index vs handicap

A handicap index is a term that’s more specific to an official handicapping system. It refers to how a golfer’s game is rated to a particular system. The most popular handicap index system used in the United States is the USGA Handicap System. The use of the term by the USGA started in the early 1980s when the golf body added slope rating to the equation.

Handicap Index Calculation

Round Differential

There are two types of handicap index calculations. The first is for individual rounds and the second for your overall rating.

The first measures your score for the day against the difficulty of the course. This number is called round differential and uses the formula below.

Adjusted Gross Score-rating of the course X 113 / Course slope rating.

Thankfully, you don’t need to pull your graphing calculator out after each round. When you enter your score into the GHIN system, it is calculated automatically.

Overall Handicap Index

To get your handicap index, the GHIN system keeps track of your 20 most recent scores. Then, your 12 worst are thrown away and the remaining 8 averaged out. That average of your best 8 becomes your handicap index and ultimately, the number used to calculate course handicap.

2024 Handicap Index Update

Beginning January 1st, 2024, there is a change coming to the handicap calculation world. It’s nothing that will change the difference between index and handicap. But it will certainly make things easier for golfers who don’t play 18 every time out.

In the past, only 18-hole scores counted towards your handicap. When you played 9, you received your differential, but it did not count towards your 20 rounds until combined with another 9-hole score.

With the new rule change, your 9-hole score will count right away and your handicap will show your good and bad stretches more easily.

Who Uses Handicap Index?

Every golfer with a desire to play in tournaments, competitively, or keep track of their progress has a handicap index. Or at least they should. This is the only way to accurately compare rounds at different courses, from shorter and longer sets of tees, and in varying conditions.

Without this number, you might think breaking 90 is the same accomplishment at any course. Only problem is, it’s far from the truth. Due to the difficulty of different courses and tee selection, shooting 85 and 100 at different courses might produce the same differential.

As you improve in golf, your handicap index will be one of the first places it shows.

Even the pros keep tabs on their handicap index. While he’s not putting in every round he plays, you can see what Jon Rahm is up to in the off-season. If you have a basic understanding of how the GHIN app works, you’ll find him and his +9.5 index amongst the regular golfers in Arizona.

The Good and Bad of Handicap Index

What’s great about handicap index is that it slides with you as you improve. Entering good scores? Your index will go down and become more representative of the player you are today. Going through a bad stretch? Your index goes up and you’re at less of a disadvantage when playing competitively.


  • You can go to any course and have an idea of what you might shoot.
  • Your differential makes it easy to see if you played well or not. Round differential lower than your index? You played well. Higher differential? Maybe you left a few shots out there.
  • Helps to compare you against others, even if you don’t play the same courses.


  • Goes down easily since one good score has an immediate effect but does not go up as quickly.
  • Those who play the same course all the time often have lower indexes than they would if they played somewhere different each time out. This could lead to struggles when playing competitively somewhere new.

What is the Handicap?

A handicap is used as a general term to represent a golfer’s average score in relation to par.

Handicap Calculation

In the handicap index vs handicap calculation battle, handicap is the far easier one to determine. It also happens before a round, when your mind might be a bit clearer—when you aren’t thinking of that missed par putt on hole 18.

To find your course handicap, the formula is: Handicap Index x (Slope Rating / 113.)

The result of this equation becomes how many strokes over or under par someone of your skill level is expected to shoot. If the sum is 12, that means a score of +12 on 18 holes is an average day for you.

If playing competitively, you would be “getting shots” on the 12 most difficult holes, as defined by course rating and found on the scorecard.

Who Uses Handicap?

Your individual handicap comes up most frequently in competitive settings. The best golfers play “gross” tournaments. In this setup, their score is their score, and handicap does not come into play.

However, for most people, tournaments and matches are played “net.” For these, handicap is subtracted from total score and the remaining number is the one you’ll see on the leaderboard. For instance, a 15 handicap that shoots 90 will be given the number 75.

The Good and Bad of Handicap


  • The handicap measurement levels the playing field amongst all golfers. Without this number, people with different skill levels could not have an evenly matched competition against one another.


  • Unfortunately, handicap has bad parts on both sides. Some golfers purposely make their handicap higher than it should be to gain an unfair advantage while playing against others. This is done by not submitting good scores or adding phony strokes to scores they do submit. Manipulating handicap this way is cheating.
  • On the other end, we have vanity handicaps. While it is not traditional cheating, it is against the spirit of the game and involves a player claiming to be better than they are. These golfers do the opposite by not entering their high scores and submitting scores lower than they shot. You know the type, the people who count mulligans and claim they would have made very short putt if they took their time.

Difference between Handicap Index and Handicap

Handicap index vs handicap is one of those things that is initially confusing, but once you get it, you get it. The difference between index and handicap boils down to what you’re comparing yourself to.

Your index can give you a bonafide answer to the question of which player is better. Handicap sets up the battle between golfer and golf course.

How Do You Get a Handicap Index?

It’s very easy – join a golf club.

Once a club can meet the USGA’s guidelines for supervising golf activities, can guarantee to maintain the integrity of the USGA Handicap System, and can provide for peer review, it’ll certainly be able to provide a USGA Handicap Index for its members.

Remember that you’ll have to post your scores from at least five 18-hole rounds for your handicap index to be established. However, you don’t have to limit this to the rounds you’re playing with your club. It is allowed for you to post rounds from different courses and times, as long as there’s someone to attest to these scores.

If you are confused about where or how to start, you can become an associate member of the SCGA. Becoming an associate member of the SCGA would automatically place you with a nearby club so you can start to track your new club. It also provides opportunities for you to play in events alongside other club members.

Are All Golf Handicap Indexes Calculated the Same?

The primary basis for calculating a handicap index is your course rating.

The golf course rating is a numerical value used to represent the difficulty level of the course and the set of tees.

The course rating is typically determined by the state or regional golf association. Usually, a team of experts is deployed from these associations to measure the course value and slope ratings. The slope rating is an essential factor in the USGA’s formula for calculating the handicap differential used in the GHIN Handicap Index.

Score differential = (Adjusted Gross Score – Course Rating – Playing conditions adjustment calculations) × (113 Standard Slope/Slope Ratings of Tees Played)

The above formula works for all handicap services based in the United States.

Why You Should Have a Golf Handicap Index (7 Reasons)

With handicap index becoming more popular in golf, it’s no more strange to see newbies and amateur golfers wondering why they should get a handicap index.

If you are in this category, here are some reasons why you should consider joining a club and getting the right calculation for your handicap index.

1. Allows you to play in a level playing field

As golf enthusiasts, we all have those friends that immersed themselves so much in the game from a very young age. Unsurprisingly, such friends tend to destroy you every single time you attempt to play with them.

Demoralizing, right?

Well, you don’t have to play with them since it means giving away strokes arbitrarily. Having a handicap can help you pick someone on your own handicap, therefore, offering you a level playground to perform at your best and develop accordingly.

2. It allows you to participate in local competitions where handicap index is required

There’ll always be times when your friends or office crew would need an additional member at their local course.

However, most such tournaments would require a local handicap index. You don’t want to turn down the opportunity to have fun with friends or raise work camaraderie because you do not have a golf handicap index.

Get a handicap index today and save yourself from the shame of turning down opportunities to play.

3. It offers you the right pedestal to access your progress and skill level

This is, in fact, one of the most popular reasons why people get a handicap index.

Getting your correct index can help you track your progress since you’ll know whether you are becoming better or worse. You’ll get to answer questions like whether your trend is headed towards a U.S. Open bid or a complete set of clubs tossed in the lake.

4. You can get an accurate reflection of how well you performed vs. the course

A significant feature of the handicap system is its derivation from the USGA course rating. This means that you get to calculate your performance based on the course you’ve played in.

So, if you do not perform well in a tournament, it’s probably because you are playing in an unfavorable course, and the handicap index recognizes this. So the next time you are disappointed about your 94 points from the PGA WEST Stadium Course tips, remember that it’s equivalent to an 82 points score at The Rancho Park GC.

5. Stop Losing Money

We all know how annoying it can be to continue losing money because you are playing with people miles ahead of you in playing ability. Therefore, it’s a no-brainer that knowing your handicap index can help you stop losing all this money.

If you’ve been lighting your money on fire because you are supposedly not getting strokes from your friends (who are clearly better). A handicap index would pitch you with other players at your level so that you can start to earn some loot back.

6. It offers you chances to win prizes in charity tournaments

Charity tournaments are becoming more popular these days.

And we all love to play in charity tournaments since they help great causes, don’t we?

Of course, there are prizes as additional motivation to play in these tournaments, and we all love to win prizes. If you are one of those people that use approximate handicaps, it makes you automatically ineligible.

That would be a good rake, won’t it?

7. You would also understand the scorecard

We all hate the dumb feeling of not knowing our score on the course, right?

Well, a handicap index allows you to learn what the heck those numbers on your scorecard really represent. You’ll typically see ‘handicap’ printed all over your scorecard – it’s time to know.